Karen M. Fraser, Photography and Japan
Book Review by Mary Warner Marien
Published by: Reaktion Books
ISBN: 978 1 86189 797 8
In her new book, Karen M. Fraser maintains that Japanese photography is best seen in the milieu of Japan’s dynamic social history, particularly its rapid transformation from feudalism to capitalism. From the start, Japanese photographic practice responded to the needs of modernisation. Early photographic portraits made of the Mejii emperor were staged to show him as a modern leader in an ancient land. At the same time, photography responded to Japanese cultural notions. Fraser contrasts the Western roots of the word, photography (light writing), with the Japanese term, shashin, which means ‘truth copy’ or ‘reflecting truth.’ The Japanese configuration emphasised faithful recording of the visual and discouraged manipulation of the image.
The Pictorial style of the early 20th century may have been international in scope, but in Japan it drew on indigenous aesthetics and demographics. Of course, the best known Japanese use of photography came after World War II, in response both to defeat and to the effects of the atomic bombings. But the socalled bubble economy of the 1980s also found its way into images, as do the contradictions of contemporary city and suburban life in Japan. Oddly, the internet, digital photography, and camera phones have little presence in Fraser’s analysis of present-day photography. Nevertheless, this an insightful book with many fresh analyses and pictures.